This is Miss Ona Vitkus. This is her life story on tape. This is Part One.
Is it on?
I can’t answer all these. We’ll be here till doomsday.
I’ll answer the first one, but that’s it.
I was born in Lithuania. In the year nineteen hundred. I don’t recall the place. I might have, oh, the vaguest recollection of some farm animals. A horse, or some other large beast. White, with spots.
Maybe a cow.
I have no idea what type of cows live in Lithuania. But I seem to recollect — you know those spotted dairy-type cows you see everywhere?
Holsteins. Thank you. Oh, and cherry trees. Lovely cherry trees that looked like soapsuds in the spring. Big, frothy, flowering things.
Then there was a long trip, and a ship’s crossing. I remember that in pieces. You’ve got a million questions on that sheet —
Fifty, yes. Fine. I’m just saying, you don’t have to ask them in order.
Because the story of your life never starts at the beginning. Don’t they teach you anything in school?
She was waiting for him — or someone — though he had not phoned ahead. “Where’s the boy?” she called from her porch.
“Couldn’t make it,” he said. “You Mrs. Vitkus?” He’d come to fill her bird feeders and put out her trash and tender sixty minutes to the care of her property. He could do at least that.
She regarded him peevishly, her face a collapsed apple, drained of color but for the small, unsettling, seed-bright eyes. “My birds went hungry,” she said. “I can’t manage the ladder.” Her voice suggested mashed glass.
“Mrs. Ona Vitkus? Forty-two Sibley Ave.?” He checked the address again; he’d taken two buses across town to get here. The green bungalow sat at the woodsy edge of a dead-end street, two blocks from a Lowe’s and a few strides from a hiking trail. Standing in the driveway, Quinn could hear birds and traffic in equal measure.
“It’s ‘Miss,’?” she said haughtily. He caught the faintest trace of an accent. The boy hadn’t mentioned it. She’d probably staggered through Ellis Island with the huddled masses. “He didn’t come last week, either,” she said. “These boys don’t stick to things.”
“I can’t help that,” Quinn said, suddenly wary. He’d been led to expect a pink-cheeked charmer. The house resembled a witch’s hovel, with its dreary flower beds and sharply pitched dormers and shingles the color of thatch.
“They’re supposed to be teaching these boys about obedience. Prepared and kind and obedient .?.?. kind and obedient and .?.?.” She rapped herself lightly on the forehead.
“Clean,” Quinn offered.
The boy was gone: clean gone. But Quinn couldn’t bring himself to say it.
“Clean and reverent,” the woman said. “That’s what they promise. They pledge. I thought this one was the real McCoy.” Another weak echo of accent: something brushy in the consonants, nothing an ordinary ear would pick up.
“I’m his father,” Quinn said.
“I figured.” She shifted inside her quilted parka. She also wore a hat with pompoms, though it was fifty-five degrees, late May, the sun beading down. “Is he sick?”
“No,” Quinn said. “Where’s the birdseed?”
The old woman shivered. Her stockinged legs looked like rake handles jammed into small black shoes. “Out back in the shed,” she said. “Next to the door, unless the boy moved it. He gets his little notions. There’s a ladder there, too. You’re tall. You might not need it.” She sized Quinn up as if considering a run at his clothes.
“If I lowered the feeders,” he suggested, “you could fill them yourself.”
She dug her fists into her hips. “I’m quite put out about this,” she said. All at once she sounded near tears, an unexpected key change that sped things up on Quinn’s end.
“Let me get to it,” he said.
“I’ll be inside.” She aimed a knuckly finger toward her door. “I can supervise just as well through the window.” She spoke with a zeal at odds with her physical frailty, and Quinn doubted for the first time Belle’s word that Ona Vitkus was 104 years old. Since the boy’s death, Belle’s view of reality had gone somewhat gluey. Quinn was awed by her grief, cowed by its power to alter her. He wanted to save her but had no talent for anything more interpersonally complicated than to obey commands as a form of atonement. Which was how he’d wound up here, under orders from his twice-ex-wife, to complete their son’s good deed.
The shed had peeling double doors that opened easily. The hinges looked recently oiled. Inside, he found a stepladder with a broken rung. The place reeked of animal — not dog or cat, something grainier; mice, maybe. Or skinny, balding, fanged rats. Garden implements, seized with rust, hung in a diagonal line on the far wall, points and prongs and blades facing out. He considered the ways the boy could have been hurt on this weekly mission of mercy: ambushed by falling timber, gnawed by vermin — Troop 23’s version of bait and switch.
But the boy had not been hurt. He had been, in his words, “inspired.”
Quinn found the birdseed in a plastic bucket that he recognized. It had once held the five gallons of joint compound with which he’d repaired the walls of Belle’s garage — before their final parting, before she returned his rehearsal space to a repository for paint thinner and plant poisons and spare tires. Inside the bucket Quinn found a king-size scoop, shiny and cherry red, jolly as a prop in a Christmas play. On a nearby shelf he spotted nine more scoops, identical. The boy was a hoarder. He kept things that could not be explained. On the day before the funeral, Belle had opened the door to the boy’s room, instructing Quinn to look around if he wanted, but to remove nothing, touch nothing. So, he counted. Bird nests: 10; copies of Old Yeller: 10; flashlights: 10; piggy banks: 10; Boy Scout manuals: 10. He had Popsicle sticks , acorns, miniature spools of the sort found in ladies’ sewing kits, everything corralled into tidy ten-count groupings. One computer, ten mouse pads. One desk, ten pencil cases. Hoarding, Belle maintained, was a reasonable response to a father whose attentions dribbled like water from a broken spigot. “Figure it out,” she had once told him. “Why would an eleven-year-old child insist on all this backup for the things he needs?”
Because there’s something wrong with him, went Quinn’s silent answer. But on that solemn day they’d observed the room in silence. As Belle preceded Quinn out the door, Quinn palmed the boy’s diary — a single notebook, spiral-bound, five by seven, basic black — and shoved it inside his jacket. Nine others remained, still sealed in shrink-wrap.
As Quinn lugged the birdseed out to Miss Vitkus’s feeders, he pictured the rest of Troop 23 happily do-gooding for more appealing charity cases, the type who knitted pink afghans. The scoutmaster, Ted Ledbetter, a middle-school teacher and single father who claimed to love woodland hikes, had likely foisted Miss Vitkus on the one kid least likely to complain. Now she was tapping on the window, motioning for Quinn to get cracking.
Between the house and a massive birch, Miss Vitkus had strung a thirty-foot clothesline festooned with bird feeders. At six-two, he didn’t require the ladder, though the boy would have, small as he was, elfin and fine-boned. Quinn had also been small at eleven, shooting up the following summer in a growth spurt that left him literally aching and out of clothes. Perhaps the boy would have been tall. A tall hoarder. A tall counter of mysterious things.